What Is Discourse?

At the most basic level, “discourse” can serve as a synonym for “communication.” It is the means that people use to put language together to make it intelligible to each other. However, people further break down the broad term into specific “discourses,” or singular styles of language that focus on a specific topic, such as “academic discourse,” “political discourse,” or even “public discourse.” When these terms are used, we mean the language relating to that topic: the language we use to communicate in academia is “academic discourse,” for example. Many scholars have noted that our means of communication are not based on language alone and are highly contextually and socially dependent (Street, 1984; Gee, 2008).

James Paul Gee (2008) further broke down discourse into “discourse” (small “d” discourse) versus “Discourse” (big “D” discourse). Small “d” discourse refers to the features of language whereas big “D” Discourses are “ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are instantiations of particular identities (or ‘types of people’) by specific groups” (p. 3). He wrote, “Discourses are ways of being ‘people like us’” (p. 3). The social, contextual, and highly complex nature of Discourse is important to understanding how discourses function in the contexts in which they are practiced. It is this definition of Discourse that I draw on in the exploration of discourse communities in this text: not simply language but also the social factors that inform that language. The ways that people use discourses help to construct the ways that they look at the world, shape the meanings of texts, and allow them to perform as certain kinds of people. Discourses are ways of doing, ways of thinking, and ways of being in the world.

For the purposes of this text, readers can think of “discourse” as a set of social conventions that a group of people use to communicate. This includes (but is not limited to) specific vocabulary, specialized written genres, and conventionalized multimodal texts—as well as the social systems that support them. For example, in the discourse of rhetoric and composition, scholars use specialized vocabulary that users of that discourse will all recognize, such as “composition,” “mode,” or even the term “discourse” itself. These terms are used very differently outside of rhetoric and composition discourse. We also have a set of common abbreviations we in the field would all recognize, such as WPA, CCCC, and FYC. Those outside of the field will not likely know what these are. And we have certain field-specific genres also. Some of these include teaching-narrative based articles (which are often anecdotal and structured around a personal narrative), data-focused articles (which follow a structure more similar to a scientific IMRAD article), introductions for edited collections (which start with a broad opening and continue to a summary of the chapters that follow), and pedagogy-based manuscripts (which often pose a teaching problem that may come from personal experience, and then pose a solution based on a combination of research and self-collected data). If I say “current-traditional rhetoric,” a rhetoric and composition scholar is likely to know what I mean whereas someone outside the field probably will not. If I mention to a compositionist that I am teaching an FYC course, they probably have some idea what that course might cover. All of these terms, usages, and genres come with a historical context that has created and supported them, and understanding both the discourse and the contexts is part of understanding the field of rhetoric and composition. Teachers and researchers in the field have a shorthand way to communicate with each other that is based around the social conventions that we have created and continue to support.

A “discourse community” is a porous, amorphous, and often ill-defined group of people who use the social conventions of a discourse. Members may be more fluent or less fluent in a vague set of conventions—and they may come and go from the community over time. David W. Smit (2004) noted that discourse communities are defined by what they have in common, “what they share, when they use certain kinds of language” (p. 86). Discourse communities are defined by the common ways in which they communicate. These common ways usually result from a shared set of purposes: certain values the community is trying to instantiate or certain goals the community is trying to achieve. The relationship between communication and goals is reciprocal. The goals affect the communication, and the communication “affects the purposes and meanings of the written texts produced within the community” (Beaufort, 2007, p. 18-19). Because the goals are not policed by any members of the discourse, they are often vague and only partially connected across members. The goals are often a Venn diagram of overlapping goals of individual members rather than a central, clearly-defined set of goals that any one member can point to.

If I were to define who uses the rhetoric and composition discourse described above, I could get to the central group—professors of rhetoric and composition—as well as several groups who have partial knowledge of the discourse—literature professors who teach composition occasionally, high school teachers who are preparing students for the Advanced Placement composition test, and students taking composition classes. Most discourse communities have ill-defined borders such as this. Not every member of the discourse community is fluent in the discourse, and people move in and out of being members of the discourse community over time.

We are all part of many discourse communities, and we are proficient in the discourse of these communities to a greater or lesser degree for each one. We often are members of discourse communities related to where we grew up and currently live, related to our personal interests and hobbies, related to our careers, and so on. The discourse of one community may affect how we use the discourse of another—consciously or unconsiously. As our life circumstances change or our interest waxes or wanes, we may become more or less fluent in a discourse. And over time, the discourse itself changes and reforms. New members join, and those new members help to reshape the discourse of the community. In fact, being a member of a discourse community often includes not only the ability to perform the discourse but also the ability to reshape the discourse in new ways.

Criticism of the concept of discourse communities

Scholars such as Joseph Harris (1989) have critiqued the concept of discourse community. Harris’s primary critique was of the word “community,” because of the vague conception but positive feeling that people associate with the word. He argued that the “communities” people refer to, such as the particularly vague “academic discourse community,” are “utopias–nowheres” that are “tied to no particular time or place” (p. 14). Harris pushed back on the idea of an academic discourse community because it sets up a false dichotomy between “academic” and “common” discourses. Mary Jo Reiff (1996) also pushed back against the idea of discourse community, stating that they are more of a metaphor than a real audience. She stated that they’re portrayed as “homogenous and monolithic” but obviously, they are neither of these (p. 412). Paul Prior (1998) presented concerns that the concept of discourse community presents a view of language that is too structuralist—that is, the term presents a view of language that is static and divorced from the social context in which it exists. He stated that disciplines are presented as “both authoritative and unified” (p. 4) but “even the experts in a discipline do not find themselves operating in a predicable arena of shared values and conventions” (p. 17).

These criticisms of the concept of “discourse community” are valid. Discourse communities should not be presented as “homogenous and monolithic” nor should they be seen as “authoritative and unified.” They are vague, they are messy, and they are fuzzy not only around the edges but also right in the center. Harris (1989) suggested teaching about discourse communities anyway and presenting to students “a kind of useful dissonance” (p. 17) as they explore the vague, contrary, and overlapping discourse communities they’re learning to engage with. Harris argues against teaching “towards a mastery of some particular, well-defined sort of discourse” and instead working toward “polyphony—an awareness of and pleasure in the various competing discourses that make up” the discourses that students use in their lives (p. 17). Reiff (1996) also called for an embrace of the messiness, asking that we embrace a model of audience and discourse community that “accounts for multiple and shifting roles of readers as they participate in social groups” (p. 414).

The trickiness of discourse communities can be taught as students learn to navigate them. They should be encouraged to embrace the dissonance and learn to understand why the discourse is not “homogenous and monolithic.” They should become comfortable in the fuzziness. After all, understanding a discourse community is not about finding the “right” answers to how to use the discourse but instead is about learning to ask the right questions in order to understand the discourse more fully.